We all have our own perspectives, and it’s hard to look outside of them. Sometimes life pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you look at things through another lens. Life recently made me look at the Chrysler Pacifica PHEV from a very different angle: from the perspective of a person who likes minivans.
I have 4 kids, so you might think I’d consider a minivan, but I’m just not a minivan person. I don’t have anything against them, but they’re just not for me. At all. My mom, on the other hand, loves them. She’s owned a number of different vans and minivans over the years. Her last two vans were Dodge Grand Caravans. She really likes them — enough, apparently, to go for three in a row.
Recently, she told me she was going to trade in for a newer Caravan. Whenever a friend or family member says they’re car shopping, I try to point them toward electric vehicles, or at the very least, a plug-in hybrid. Knowing that she wasn’t going to consider anything but an FCA minivan, I suggested the Pacifica PHEV. I knew it would take some convincing, so I needed to do my homework.
To gather more information, I found one at a local dealer and took it for a test drive. For the first time, I was trying to look at a vehicle I was testing from the perspective of another person with very different taste than myself, and it was a pretty interesting experience.
My Past Experience With Minivans: Not So Good
Before I continue, I want to mention that my distaste for minivans isn’t based on ignorance. Not only did I grow up riding around in minivans, but I learned to drive with them. The first car I drove on public roads was a GMC Safari, a “midsize” van. Unlike most newer minivans, the Safari was rear-wheel drive and had a fairly hot (for its time) V6 engine. The 4.3L V6 was basically a GM 350 cubic inch V8 with the front two cylinders removed.
Since then, I drove several different minivans my parents had. I figured out pretty quickly what the limitations were, though. As a fairly aggressive driver, I figured out that body roll was problematic in corners unless you drive like a grandma. They often had good engine power, but clunky “slushbox” automatic transmissions ruin most of the potential fun before the power could get to the wheels. I learned that minivans are all about getting from A to B, with maximum flexibility for hauling people or cargo, but with no real emphasis on being a good drive.
Even my mom’s most recent Caravan was disappointing when I drove it around on occasion. For family transport, the car wasn’t lacking, but it just didn’t feel like minivans had advanced since the 1990s, except for maybe fuel economy. The body roll was slightly reduced, but the slushbox was still far too clunky for my taste. It was still just a boring A to B car.
Pacifica PHEV Interior
The van I was able to find locally was a 2019 Touring Plus package.
First, I had the kids help test out the interior. My mom’s Dodge vans were both bought well after I was an adult, but the kids like to spend a lot of time with grandparents, so they’ve had a lot more seat time in FCA vans that I have had. They were basically the experts this time.
The seating, cargo volume, and everything else was almost identical to my mom’s Dodge. It had two front seats, two middle seats, and three in the rear. The doors and liftgate all opened and closed with buttons if you wanted to. The only real difference I could see was that the rear bench could fold completely flat into the floor while the middle row could not. That’s where FCA chose to put the battery pack, so the “stow and go” for the middle row is now a “no go.”
We still managed to fold the middle row chairs up and push them forward, which ended up taking up very little cargo room. There’s also the option of completely removing them, so it might not really be a problem for nearly all situations.
For fans of minivans, the Pacifica PHEV really does all the things a minivan is supposed to do with only one very small drawback. Trying to think from my mom’s perspective, it seemed like, “so far, so good.”
I asked the kids what they thought, and my oldest daughter (10) was distracted by the TV at first. She was excited about it until she found out it could only play DVDs. “You mean I can’t plug my phone or Xbox into it?” I suddenly felt older when I told her that we didn’t have TVs in cars when I was a kid. Either way, higher packages of the Pacifica come with the inputs kids want.
My partner, who is more of a crossover fan, was generally impressed with all of the storage spaces, organizational features, and general roominess.
Driving the Pacifica PHEV
I approached test driving with low expectations. I figured it was going to be about like mom’s 2016 Dodge, but with an electric motor. The vehicle managed to completely surprise me, though.
First I started by looking at the displays. I didn’t have a lot of time to do a full menu dive, but I quickly found out how to set the digital display to show me what was going on with the drivetrain. It shows you positive and negative power from the EV system, and positive power from the gasoline engine.
In past test drives of EVs and plugin hybrids, I’ve often caught dealers neglecting them. For example, one Chevy dealer had a Volt with a dead battery and a low tire warning. After starting the car, it activated “maintenance mode,” which meant it hadn’t been turned on and run in over 6 weeks. The Chrysler dealer didn’t do that. The car was good to go, clean, and had a 50% battery charge. The guess-o-meter showed 15 miles of EV range and around 100 miles of gas range.
The first thing I noticed was that it had plenty of low-end torque. Only a light touch of the throttle was needed to propel the beast to 40 MPH. I had previously read that with full throttle the gas engine would kick in, but there’s enough light-press power to avoid burning gas for nearly all drives.
I then tried to see how it felt to push it harder. The gas engine kicked on, but it was very unobtrusive. It wasn’t loud like a first-gen Volt I had previously owned. It didn’t “clunk” into life or give a bunch of noise and vibration. I could hear the engine sound, for sure, but it was well blended in. The first time I activated the ICE, it stayed on for another 30–40 seconds, but every time after, it turned right back off after throttle was eased up.
City driving was very smooth, seamless, and completely lacked the awful feeling of a cheap automatic transmission. It was very pleasant, and even a little fun. It was clear that the gas engine was there to help, not steal the show. Even the kids noticed the differences. My daughter said “It was like grandma’s van, but smoother.”
Handling, on the other hand was night-and-day better than my mom’s Dodge. I don’t know if the Chrysler versions of these vans comes with a better suspension or if it’s just the PHEV version that got a better suspension, but I could feel the difference. It actually felt good to drive this van. I’m sure the lower center of gravity was a factor, because the van has its battery pack in the floorboard.
By switching the gear selector to L, it’s possible to do one-pedal driving. Regenerative braking is heavy enough to slow the van to a crawl, but unlike my LEAF, it can’t come to a complete stop. In both D and L modes, the vehicle “creeps” forward. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any way to disable the creep.
When I got back, the battery was at 10% and the guess-o-meter estimated 5 miles remained. My loop around the west side of El Paso was 10.6 miles. With not-so-gentle driving, that works out to the EV range being about 27 miles. After that, efficiency should still be pretty good, as the vehicle isn’t shy about turning off the ICE. I didn’t get a chance to do a more in-depth hypermiling test or anything, and hope to do that in the future.
When we were unloading the kids and moving booster seats back to the LEAF, I noticed that the dealer had an AeroVironment EVSE on the lot. The salesman told us he planned to give it a charge in the morning before they opened.
Many other El Paso dealers, even Nissan dealers that occasionally stock a LEAF, either have broken L2 chargers or just rely on trickle charging to charge their cars, assuming they don’t just leave them dead. This seems to indicate to me that FCA is taking the sales of these PHEV vans seriously enough to train and equip their dealers.
They really do seem to want to sell these. Overall, I’m very impressed with the Pacifica PHEV. I’m still not a fan of minivans, but they did a good enough job on these that they may manage to convert a few crossover buyers. For someone who will only consider a minivan, it’s a solid option.
For the price, however, I’d rather wait on the Tesla Model Y. At $42,000 MSRP, a dealer would have to give me a pretty good deal for me to consider the vehicle when the Y holds 7, performs much better, and will be available in the same price range once mid-range and standard-range models become available. FCA is going to need to sell this vehicle at a lower price point to compete in the next couple years.
But that’s me. The performance and EV enthusiast. For my mom, it’s probably the only EV or PHEV on the market.
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